What is a Rugged Computer?

  • A rugged (or ruggedized, but also ruggedized) computer is a computer specifically designed to operate reliably in harsh usage environments and conditions, such as strong vibrations, extreme temperatures and wet or dusty conditions.
  • They are designed from inception for the type of rough use typified by these conditions, not just in the external housing but in the internal components and cooling arrangements as well.

What defines a rugged computer?

  • Although there are a variety of testing methods and ratings, there is no single entity that manages, monitors, and enforces a set of ruggedness standards for mobile computers. As a result, the term "rugged" is relative. Just because a manufacturer describes a device as "rugged" doesn't necessarily mean that it fills your particular needs.
  • Any "rugged" device has likely been reinforced to some extent and will offer some extra protection, but in order to find out, you need to take a good look at it, know what the listed ruggedness specifications mean, and probably ask a number of questions.
  • In fairness to manufacturers, the lack of a clear definition of the term "rugged" is probably as frustrating to them as it is to customers. It makes, for example, no sense to go all out and design a device that is nearly indestructible when all that is needed is protection from a bit of occasional rain or some bumps in the road. In the same respect, if a device must survive under the harshest environmental conditions, then it better be up to the task.
  • From a user perspective, ruggedness describes a computer’s ability to operate in any type of exposed working condition, not just for a single use, but for three to five years of its life expectancy. Depending upon the type of work performed, however, what is rugged for one user may not be rugged for another.
  • Ruggedness is defined by testing environmental specifications. The three most common tests are for temperature range, military standards (MIL-STD) and IP rating.
  • The United States Army’s Developmental Test Command issues MIL-STD-810G ratings on equipment for military (and now, civilian) use. These ratings include 24 laboratory tests in a variety of environments, from high-altitude performance to surviving the ballistic shock. No mobile computer has been tested with all 24 methods, as many of them do not apply to mobile computing — but generally speaking, the more tests a unit passes, the more rugged the unit.
  • However, it is very pertinent to note that the MIL-Standards are design standards. So, they allow the severity of a rugged parameter to be tailored according to the conditions anticipated during the service life of the rugged tablet. So, MIL-STD-810G for drop test could be 3 feet or even feet, meaning different levels of ruggedization even though both products have the MIL-STD-810G drop certification.
  • Temperature specifications define a device’s operational temperature range. Firehawk purposely targets a broad range of temperature: We offer products that can operate from -20 C up to 60 C.
  • IP stands for Ingress Protection. An IP rating describes levels of protection for electrical equipment against solids and liquids. The rating is displayed using two numbers. The first digit describes a level of protection against dust, and has seven different levels from zero to six. The second digit describes a level of protection against liquids (water), and has nine different levels from zero to eight. All of our rugged computers are at least IP65-rated, which means they are completely dustproof and can withstand jets of water.
First digit
Protection against dust
0 No protection
1 Protection against solids up to 50 mm
2 Protection against solids up to 12 mm
3 Protection against solids up to 2.5 mm
4 Protection against solids up to 1 mm
5 Protection against dust; limited ingress
6 Totally protected against dust
Second digit 
Protection against water
0 No protection
1 Protected against dripping water
2 Protected against dripping water (tilted)
3 Protected against water spray
4 Protected against splashing water
5 Protected against water jets
6 Protected against a nozzle under pressure
7 Protected against immersion (1 meter for 30 min)
8 Protected against submersion (at depth, under pressure)

How to choose a Rugged Computer?

  • With that in mind, let's consider what ruggedness really means, and what different categories of ruggedness there are. The basic purpose of ruggedization is protection from external abuse and penetration. The device needs to be able to not only physically survive punishment, but continue to function as well. Quite obviously, "abuse" is relative. Let's look at some examples. A Sony PlayStation, for example, must be able to take plenty of abuse from kids without losing its ability to read a CD-ROM disk, but no one would call a Play station "rugged."
  • A notebook computer that does duty in a police cruiser must be able to withstand some vibration and a few bumps, handle the temperature extremes encountered in a vehicle, and generally absorb some rough handling day after day. That requires a certain degree of ruggedization, but they are minor compared to what would be required for a device that will be strapped down inside a tank. Similarly, a handheld data collection terminal used to read meter data from customer locations must be engineered to be water resistant (though not necessarily water-proof) and handle an occasional drop. One used by the Special Ops Commandoes of a military, on the other hand, must be totally waterproof and able to withstand just about any torture imaginable.
  • Considering the above, it is easy to come to some conclusions. First, when it comes to ruggedization one size does not fit all. You need to figure out what the device needs to be protected against and then seek one that provides that protection. Second, ruggedization means extra cost and extra weight. It makes no sense to go for maximum protection with the corresponding high cost when a less extreme design will do.
  • So let's look at some of the questions you need to ask yourself:
    Indoor/outdoor: Will the device be used outdoors or mainly indoors? Ruggedness requirements for computers used indoors are almost always less than those used outdoors.
  • Temperature : What temperature ranges will the device encounter? Only you know if that is enough or not.
  • Impact : What's the likelihood that the device will be dropped? From what height? And onto what kind of surface? And will those be freak occurrences or something that might happen on a daily basis?
  • Vibration : We don't usually think of vibration as a problem for electronic equipment, but constant exposure can damage circuits and severe connections.
  • Water Resistance : If you use your device outdoors, will it encounter just a few drops every now and then? Will it be operated in rainstorms? Could it be totally submerged in water?
  • Humidity : Again, not something we usually give much thought to. But constant high humidity may wreak havoc with sensitive circuits unless they are properly protected.
  • Altitude : Will the device be operated in an airplane? A submarine ? In high altitudes ?
  • Sand and Dust : Remember the last trip to the beach? Sand accumulates everywhere. If your computer will be exposed to sand and dust it better be protected against them. These are just some environmental variables a computer may need protection against. Others include temperature shock, fungus, safe operation in explosive atmospheres, sudden acceleration, salt fog, gunfire, icing, and more.

The Magic Of TCO

  • Understanding TCO (total cost of ownership), you'll see that rugged computers actually cost less than consumer-grade devices.
  • When going out to purchase new mobile computers, most businesses may be tempted to base buying decisions solely on a product's purchase price. But because the purchase price does not reflect the real cost of the unit, this could turn out to be a costly mistake. To truly evaluate what a product costs, we need to look at the cost over the life of the product. This is known as the product's total cost of ownership (TCO).
  • Even if we do not know the term TCO, we often apply it in other areas of our life. When we are buying a new car, most buyers will do at least some research to find out about the vehicle's repair record. A cheaper car that spends half the time in the repair shop is no bargain.
  • The same concept applies to mobile computers. Computers taken outside of a safe office environment are going to be subjected to a lot of rough treatment. Drops, vibration, water, dust and extreme temperatures are only some of the conditions a computer may face in the field. It seems logical that you would not take a delicate piece of electronic equipment into a rough environment, but that is what happens more often than you would think.
  • Why? Because many buyers of mobile computers are lured by the lower initial purchase price into buying non-rugged or minimally ruggedized equipment solely because of the cheaper purchase price, failing to take into account the higher costs of actually using this equipment in the field. By failing to purchase the right kind of unit for the job and the environment, they will be paying a lot more in the long run than if they had purchased a more rugged, but more expensive, the piece of equipment initially. In other words, the more expensive unit is actually the cheaper unit.
  • TCO takes into account all the actual costs incurred during the entire life of the product. TCO is comprised of hard costs (like purchase price, development, replacement, and deployment costs) and soft costs (training, repair costs, and downtime costs). As more organizations become more dependent on their mobile workforce, downtime costs have become increasingly important and costly.
  • If a field service rep has a device failure at the start of his day, the lost service revenue and customer goodwill from all the missed service calls can be substantial. Mobile computers are often defined in one of four categories:
  1. Commercial
  2. Durable
  3. Semi-rugged
  4. Fully-rugged
  • A commercial unit has little or no protection against the environment. Durable computers generally have only rubber bumpers and perhaps a shock-mounted hard drive. Semi-rugged computers are tested to some MIL-STD-810F/G and IP specifications, and fully rugged units are generally fully tested to MIL-STD-810F/G and often totally resistant to both water and dust.
  • So what is the difference in the total cost of ownership between a commercial device and a fully rugged one in a reasonably tough environment? The Venture Development Corporation (VDC) is a notable independent research firm that focuses on rugged computers. They have performed TCO computations across the 4 levels of rugged computers across a number of common mobile applications. VDC computed the total cost for each level of rugged over a 5 year lifespan and then annualized the costs. These costs (broken down into hard costs and soft costs) are shown in figure 1 below.
  • From the figure, it becomes clear that using a commercial or non-rugged device will cost you a lot more in the long run; about 65% more per year than using a fully rugged device.
  • It makes sense if you think of all the things that could happen to a non-rugged device in the field. For example, if we have a look at replacement costs. A fully rugged unit will often last at least 5 years. So if you purchase 100 fully rugged units, at the end of 5 years you will still have most of them still in operation. If you purchase 100 commercial devices and put them into a rugged environment, chances are that none of the original units will be operational at the end of 5 years. And some of those units will need to be replaced multiple times over the course of the 5 year period.
  • How many commercial devices do you need to buy before you have equaled the purchase price of a rugged unit? And that does not even include some of the other costs we discussed like downtime costs, the cost of deploying a new unit, and the cost of re-acquiring lost data. Ultimately, you need to carefully evaluate your own working situation to determine what your own total costs of ownership are going to be. If your mobile computer will not be working in rough environmental conditions, a fully rugged unit may be more rugged than you need. But buying the right level of rugged for the job to be done and the working environment is guaranteed to be the most cost-effective in the long run.
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